New York tends not to be impressed with the work of theater companies from out of town--unless, of course, they're from London. But the San Diego Repertory Theatre made a dent this week at Off Broadway's Joyce Theatre.
The Rep's staging of Romulus Linney's "Holy Ghosts" got the best reviews of the four shows that visited the Joyce this summer from various American resident theaters. The New York Post's Marilyn Stasio went so far as to say that the Rep brought the season to an "ecstatic" close.
Religious ecstasy is the subject of Linney's 1971 play, concerning a snake-handling cult in the South, the same general territory as Linney's double bill at the Back Alley Theatre this winter, "Sand Mountain."
Most of the New York reviewers seemed grateful that the San Diego actors left it to the audience to imagine the snakes. But the fervor of the cult didn't have to be imagined.
Stasio praised director Douglas Jacobs for trusting the play and for using "actors who look like they would walk through fire for the characters. Ensemble work as tight as a fist becomes its own kind of quasi-religious testimony."
Frank Rich of the New York Times was impressed at the way Jacobs' actors avoided caricature. Rather, he was reminded of faces from an album of photos by Walker Evans, the great Depression-era photographer.
"The writhing fits of prayer, hymn singing, stomping and sobbing might easily have degenerated into the lunatic sideshow that the play's principal skeptic accuses the church of being. Instead, we find ourselves unexpectedly moved by the grace of lost souls who risk everything . . . in the blind hope that they might saved."
Rich was more persuaded by the play's atmosphere than by its plot. Newsday's Leo Seligsohn agreed. He found the story "serviceable" but also "serpentine," and too easily wrapped up at the final curtain.
But the sense of dirt-poor people finding release in their strange worship touched a chord, and Seligsohn also liked designer D. Martyn Bookwalter's skill at evoking a hot night in the boondocks with a minimum of scenery.
"Holy Ghosts" rolls on at the Joyce through Aug. 29. Meanwhile, Kedric Robin Wolfe holds the fort for the company back home in San Diego with his one-man show, "Warren's Story."
IN QUOTES. Playwright Linney, in the New York Times, on why the play works better with pantomimed snakes than with real ones: "You see right through the hands of the people handling them, you see what's on the actors' faces."